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Uilleam Nèill

by Hugh McMillan

This year marks the centenary of William Neill’s birth. William Neil, born in Prestwick but resident for most of his life in Crossmichael, was an exemplary poet in all three of Scotland’s languages, English, Scots and Gaelic. The first ever graduate with an Honours Degree in Celtic Studies at Edinburgh University and winner of the Bardic Crown at the 1969 National Mod, Neill viewed Gaelic as a living, vibrant language worthy and completely deserving of national, widespread support, funding and teaching. Later this year, Drunk Muse Press will publish ‘The Leaves of All the Years’ responses to Willie’s work from a host of well known Scottish poets and writers, covering his work in all tongues.

Willie, as Angus MacMillan quotes in his excellent essay in the book on the poem ‘Map Makers’ always saw himself as ‘standing up for the small tongues against the big mouths’ – Scots and Gaelic being ‘the small tongues’ threatened by the ravenous maw of English.’

I myself recently had an altercation with a real map maker who argued that the process of validating place names was a sensitive one and usually was the result of consultation with landowners and property owners rather than colonial overwriting on the part of the cartographers. The point’s the same, though: whoever was responsible erased much of the traditions of Galloway, an area rich in Gaelic heritage, where Gaelic was spoken, as Jim McGonigal says, ‘far longer than Professor Wikipedia would tell us.’ John Keats, for instance, in his visit to Creetown en route to Portpatrick in 1818 encounters a Gaelic speaking inhabitant and had no reason to doubt there were others. The problem with eroding place names is that you erode the history and culture that is carefully encoded in them, replacing them with nonsense names, so that, as it says in the poem, the ‘the culture could not stand on solid ground’. Willie felt keenly that the extent and importance of Gaelic was consistently undermined or simply ignored, in Scotland and in Galloway. A dereliction not just of locals but by the people of Scotland itself, who had a duty to understand its integral function and place, for whom it should not be an arcane puzzle but a piece of their own political and social DNA.

‘I couldna see hou I culd possibly be a Scotsman an no ken Gaelic’.
Neill was obsessed with cultural loss and the way that it informed politics and society. We can see the Scottish ‘cultural cringe’ as a symptom of the way Scotland’s history and culture have evolved since losing its sense of itself, its lexicon. Willie was aware of this, and steadfastly stood against it throughout his life. Of course there are countless other reasons to celebrate his poetry, which was enormously erudite, skilled and humane and ranged from translations of Horace and Homer to eviscerations of the cult of Burns, but I think his unarguably justified and uncompromising stance in defence of Scotland’s oldest languages was, and is, heroic.

‘All the Leaves of the Years: Poems, Essays and Memories in William Neill’s Centenary Year’ edited by Hugh McMillan and Stuart Paterson will be published by Drunk Muse Press in May

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